Uniquely among the world’s cities, Istanbul stands astride two continents, Europe and Asia. As if its spectacular geographical location were not enough, it can also boast of being the only city to have played capital to consecutive Christian and Islamic empires, a role that has shaped the region’s history for more than 2500 years and bequeathed to Istanbul a staggering wealth of attractions; these range from the masterpiece Byzantine church of Haghia Sophia (Aya Sofya) to the formidable city walls, and the domes and minarets of the Ottoman mosques and palaces that dominate the city skyline. Although no longer its capital, the city remains the vibrant economic, cultural and intellectual heart of modern Turkey, a bustling, go-ahead city where east really does meet west.
In conservative districts such as Fatih, bearded men sporting skullcaps and baggy shalwar-style trousers devoutly heed the call to prayer, while women wouldn’t dream of leaving the house with their heads uncovered. Yet across the water, the tidal wave of humanity sweeping down İstiklal Caddesi (Independence Street) includes young Turkish men and women in designer jeans and trainers who have rarely ever been to a mosque. In business districts such as Şişli, commuters arrive via the metro to work in high-rise office blocks, shop in state-of-the-art malls, and at weekends can be out clubbing until 6am.
Whether yours is the Istanbul of the Blue Mosque and the Topkapı Palace, or the Beyoğlu nightclubs and swish rooftop cocktail bars, the city takes time to get to know. Three to four days is enough to see the major historical sights in Sultanahmet and take a ferry trip on the Bosphorus. But plan on staying in Istanbul a week, or even two, if you want to fully explore the backstreets of the old city and the outlying suburbs and islands.
In 2008, while digging the Yenikapı metro station, archeologists uncovered a Neolithic settlement dating back to circa 6500 BC. In popular tradition, however, the city was founded in the seventh century BC by Byzas, from Megara in Greece – hence the original name of Byzantium. Over the next thousand years, Byzantium became an important centre of trade and commerce, though not until the early fourth century AD did it reach the zenith of its wealth, power and prestige. For more than 350 years, it had been part of the Roman province of Asia. On Diocletian’s retirement in 305, Licinius and Constantine fought for control of the empire. Constantine finally defeated his rival on the hills above Chrysopolis (Üsküdar) and chose Byzantium as the site for the new capital of the Roman Empire in 330 BC. The hilly promontory, commanding the Bosphorus and easily defensible on its landward side, was a superb choice. It was also well placed for access to the troublesome frontiers of both Europe and the Persian Empire.
In 395, the division of the Roman Empire between the two sons of Theodosius I left what was now named Constantinople as capital of the eastern part of the empire. It rapidly developed its own distinctive character, dissociating itself from Rome and adopting the Greek language and Christianity. Long and successful government was interrupted briefly, in Justinian’s reign, by the Nika riots in 532. Half a century later, however, the dissolution of the Byzantine Empire had begun, as waves of Persians, Avars and Slavs attacked from the east and north. The empire was overrun by Arab invaders in the seventh and eighth centuries, and by Bulgars in the ninth and tenth. Only the city walls saved Constantinople, and even these could not keep out the Crusaders, who breached the sea walls in 1204 and sacked the city.
As the Byzantine Empire declined, the Ottoman Empire expanded. The Ottomans established first Bursa, then Edirne, as their capital, and Ottoman territory effectively surrounded the city long before it was taken. In 1453, Mehmet II (the Conqueror) – also known as Fatih Sultan Mehmet – besieged the city, which fell after seven weeks. Following the capture and subsequent pillage, Mehmet II began to rebuild the city, starting with a new palace and continuing with the Mosque of the Conqueror (Fatih Camii) and many smaller complexes. Tolerant of other religions, Mehmet actively encouraged Greek and Armenian Christians to take up residence in the city. His successor Beyazıt II continued this policy, settling Jewish refugees from Spain into the city in an attempt to improve the economy.
In the century following the Conquest, the victory was reinforced by the reign of Süleyman the Magnificent (1520–66), “the Lawgiver” and greatest of all Ottoman leaders. His attempted conquest of Europe was only thwarted at the gates of Vienna, and the wealth gained in his military conquests funded the work of Mimar Sinan, the finest Ottoman architect.
A century after the death of Süleyman, the empire began to show signs of decay. Territorial losses abroad combined with corruption at home, which insinuated its way into the very heart of the empire, Topkapı Palace itself. Newly crowned sultans emerged, often insane, from the institution known as the Cage, while others spent time in the harem rather than on the battlefield, consorting with women who increasingly became involved in grand-scale political intrigue.
As Ottoman territory was lost to the West, succeeding sultans became interested in Western institutional models. A short-lived parliament of 1876 was dissolved after a year by Abdülhamit II, but the forces of reform led to his deposition in 1909. The end of World War I saw Istanbul occupied by Allied troops as the victors procrastinated over how best to manage the rump of the once-great empire. After the War of Independence, Atatürk’s declaration of the Republic in 1923 and the creation of a new capital in Ankara effectively solved the problem.
The population of Greater Istanbul has increased twelvefold since the establishment of the Turkish Republic, and stands today at around 15 million. This rapid urban growth has left the city with more than its fair share of problems, from horrendous traffic congestion to housing and water shortages and rising crime rates. A UNESCO threat to revoke the city’s “World Heritage” status and place it on the “In Danger” list focused the minds of the government and local authorities on preserving the city’s glorious heritage, and Istanbul emerged from its year as a European Capital of Culture in 2010 with great credit.
Much else has been done to improve the infrastructure of one of the world’s leading cities. A government-backed housing scheme offers quality, affordable housing to low-income families in order, eventually, to replace the shanty-dwellings that have long ringed the suburbs. The European and Asian sides of the city were linked by a rail tunnel under the Bosphorus in late 2013, and the metro systems either side of the Golden Horn joined by a (controversial) bridge early in 2014. The Horn itself, once heavily polluted, has been cleaned up, and both anglers and cormorants can now be seen successfully fishing in its waters.
Arts, entertainment and festivals
İstanbul hosts a decent range of annual cultural festivals, and matches other European cities for the breadth of its arts scene. State-subsidized theatre, opera and ballet make performances affordable for all, and there’s something going on almost every night at venues around the city. Music features heavily over the summer months, when international festivals draw musicians from all over the world.
The Bosphorus Cruise
Taking a boat trip up the Bosphorus, from the bustling quays of Eminönü to the quiet fishing village of Anadolu Kavağı, is a highlight of any visit to İstanbul. The long Bosphorus Cruise, run by the Şehir Hatları company (t444 1851, wsehirhatlari.com.tr), leaves from the Boğaz Ferry Terminal just east of the Galata Bridge in Eminönü (daily: May–Oct 10.35am & 1.35pm, Nov–April 10.35am; one-way TL15, round-trip TL25).
In summer, especially at weekends, the queues to buy tickets can be very long, so allow at least half an hour, or, preferably, buy your ticket a day or two in advance. There are also often long queues to board, so late-comers end up sitting in the worst seats. The ferries are rather antiquated but comfortable enough, and you can buy snacks, sandwiches and drinks on board. The round trip, including a 2hr 30min lunch stop at Anadolu Kavağı, takes about seven hours.
The boat stops at Beşiktaş, Kanlıca (Asia), Yeniköy, Sariyer and Rumeli Kavağı (all Europe) and, finally, Anadolu Kavağı (Asia); the only stop on the return is Beşiktaş. You can leave the boat at any of the landings to explore the waterfront or hinterland, but most passengers do the return cruise. A shorter version is also available for TL10, departing from the same ferry terminal and covering the same distance with no stops (other than to pick up more passengers at Üsküdar). The tour takes around two hours, departing Eminönü at 2.30pm (April–Oct daily; Nov–March Sun & public holidays).
On Saturday nights only, between early June and mid-September, a night-time Mehtaplı cruise (TL20) makes an attractive alternative, with the great suspension bridges lit up like Christmas trees, and the lights of Asia and Europe twinkling on either side. The boat departs Eminönü at 7pm, reaching Anadolu Kavağı at 8.30pm, where it moors for dinner, before arriving back in Eminönü around midnight.
The private Turyol company also runs tours up the Bosphorus, as far as the Fatih bridge. Boats depart every hour on the hour on weekdays, more frequently at weekends, and the 1hr 30min round trip costs TL12.
City danger watch
Istanbul is undoubtedly far safer than most European or North American cities, and cases of mugging and assault against tourists are rare.
For the average visitor, pickpocketing is the main cause for concern: be particularly careful around Sirkeci station, the Eminönü waterfront, the Galata Bridge, and around Taksim (especially at night). Also avoid being on or around the Byzantine land walls at dusk/night. Be very careful, too, on public transport, particularly when it is crowded. If you feel anyone is harassing or attempting to pickpocket you, try calling out "imdat!"(meaning “help!”) and contact the tourist police.
Visitors should also be aware that political demonstrations sometimes turn into violent confrontations between police and protestors, as in the Gezi Park (part of Taksim Square) riots of 2013. Galatasary Meydanı, on busy İstiklal Caddesi, is the starting point for many protests.
İstanbul is home to Turkey’s best restaurants, including several that lavish time and skill on old Ottoman cuisine, and, thanks to the lengthy coastline, fish is a firm menu favourite. Snacks are ubiquitous, with kebab stands, pastry shops, fast-food outlets and cafés across the city catering to locals, workers and tourists alike. Restaurants around tourist honey-pot Sultanahmet tend to be of poorer quality, and are more expensive than elsewhere in the city.
The annual festival calendar is pretty full, especially between April and October. The most important modern art event is the International İstanbul Biennial, held on odd-numbered years. Organized by IKSV, the İstanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (wiksv.org), it uses venues ranging from historic buildings like the Topkapı Palace to urban-chic warehouses.
International Film Festival
wfilm.iksv.org/en. Turkish, European and Hollywood movies premiere at İstanbul’s cinemas, mainly in Beyoğlu, plus the best of the non-English-speaking world’s releases from the previous year.
Week-long festival honouring the national flower, including concerts, arts events and competitions at different locations around the city. Over three million bulbs flower across the city, planted by the municipality.
wchilloutfest.com. Dance and electronica festival held in the incongruous surroundings of ultra-posh Kemer Golf and Country Club in Belgrade Forest.
wibb.gov.tr. Week-long celebration of the Ottoman conquest of old Constantinople (May 29, 1453) – concerts by the Ottoman Mehter military band, fancy-dress processions and fireworks.
wmillerfreshtival.com. Held in Maçka’s Kücükçiftlik Parkı, this festival mixes indie, dance and rock sounds, with both international and local acts and DJs.
International Puppet Festival
t0212 232 0224. A celebration of Turkish Shadow Theatre, or karağoz – silent puppets perform behind a two-dimensional screen.
International Theatre Festival
wiksv.org. The year’s best Turkish plays (both local avant-garde and established theatre groups), and performances by visiting foreign theatres.
Efes Pilsen One Love
wicvb.org.tr/art-and-culture/. Moderately alternative city-centre weekend-long festival, usually held at Santralistanbul, with plenty of DJ-led dance sets and performances from international bands such as Röyksopp and Klaxons, plus assorted home-grown acts.
The International Music Festival
wiksv.org. This hugely successful festival was launched in 1973 to celebrate Turkey’s fifty years of independence and brings top-notch orchestras and soloists from all over the world to perform in such atmospheric venues as the church of Aya Irene.
wsonispherefestivals.com. Two-day head-banging event for (mainly Turkish) heavy-metal lovers.
International Jazz Festival
wiksv.org. Two weeks of gigs and jamming sessions from world-class performers (with the definition of jazz stretched to include rock artists such as Lou Reed and Marianne Faithful).
Rumeli Hisarı Fortress Concerts
Nightly summer concerts within the walls of this Ottoman fortification overlooking the Bosphorus – a varied programme from classical to rock.
Rock N’ Coke
wrockncoke.com. Attracts major international acts – often a little past their prime – to the (defunct) Grand Prix track on the Asian side of the city.
İstanbul Arts Fair
wtuyap.com. A week-long fair selling the work of some fifty or so İstanbul galleries and visiting foreign artists – paintings, sculptures, pottery and fabrics.
International İstanbul Biennial
wiksv.org. Multimedia contemporary arts festival that usually runs mid-September to the first week in November. Held odd years: 2013, 2015, etc.
Akbank International Jazz Festival
wakbanksanat.com. Two-week festival concentrating on traditional jazz, with performers such as Dave Holland and Henry Threadgill. Events include film screenings, informal jamming sessions and drum workshops. Varied venues include the Byzantine church of Aya Irene and the Babylon Performance Centre in Beyoğlu.
Efes Pilsen Blues Festival
Two-day late-night blues festival – a showcase of new local talent and famous foreign bands.
The land walls
Theodosius II’s land walls are among the most fascinating Byzantine remains in Turkey. Well-preserved remnants can still be found along the whole of their 6.5km length, though purists (and UNESCO) decry the fact that much of the recent work done on the walls looks like new-build rather than restoration.
The land walls were named after Theodosius II, and construction started in 413 AD. Stretching from the Marmara to Tekfur Saray, 2km further out than the previous walls of Constantine, they were built to accommodate the city’s expanding population. All citizens, regardless of rank, were required to help in the rebuilding following their collapse in the earthquake of 447 AD, in the light of the imminent threat of attack by Attila the Hun. The completed construction consisted of the original wall, 5m thick and 12m high, plus an outer wall of 2m by 8.5m, and a 20m-wide moat, all of which proved sufficient to repel Atilla’s assault.
Walking along the walls takes a little over two hours, though a full day allows time to enjoy it, and the adjacent sites, fully. Most of the outer wall and its 96 towers are still standing; access is restricted on some of the restored sections, though elsewhere there’s the chance to scramble along the crumbling edifice. As there are still plenty of run-down slums in this area, it’s best avoided at night (especially Topkapı).
The three principal sights can also be visited independently. The Yedikule fortifications, towards the southern terminus of the walls, are best reached by walking up from the suburban train station at Yedikule. The Kariye Museum, a former Byzantine church containing some of the best-preserved mosaics and frescoes in the world, just in from Edirnekapı and around 750m north of the Golden Horn, is easily accessed from the Ulubatlı M1 metro stop or the Pazartekke T1 tramstop, the Mihrimah Camii likewise – or take #28, #38E or #336E bus from Eminönü to Edirnekapı.
Formerly the church of St Saviour in Chora, the Kariye Museum (Kariye Müzesi) is decorated with a superbly preserved series of frescoes and mosaics portraying the life and miracles of Christ. Arguably the most evocative of all the city’s Byzantine treasures, it’s thought to have been built in the early twelfth century on the site of a much older church far from the centre: hence “in Chora”, meaning “in the country”. Between 1316 and 1321, the statesman and scholar Theodore Metochites rebuilt the central dome and added the narthexes and mortuary chapel.
Inside the church, the most prominent of the mosaics is that of Christ Pantocrator, bearing the inscription “Jesus Christ, the Land of the Living”. Opposite is a depiction of the Virgin and angels, with the inscription “Mother of God, the Dwelling Place of the Uncontainable”. The third in the series, located in the inner narthex, shows Metochites offering a model of the building to a seated Christ. Saints Peter and Paul are portrayed on either side of the door leading to the nave, and to the right of the door are Christ with his Mother and two benefactors, Isaac (who built the original church), and the figure of a nun.
The two domes of the inner narthex hold medallions of Christ Pantocrator and the Virgin and Child, while in the fluting of the domes there’s a series of notable figures – starting with Adam – from the Genealogy of Christ. The Cycle of the Blessed Virgin is located in the first three bays of the inner narthex. Episodes depicted here include the first seven steps of the Virgin; the Virgin caressed by her parents, with two beautiful peacocks in the background; the Virgin presented as an attendant at the temple, the Virgin receiving a skein of purple wool, as proof of her royal blood; Joseph taking the Virgin to his house, in which is also depicted one of Joseph’s sons by his first wife; and Joseph returning from a trip to find his wife pregnant.
The next cycle, found in the arched apertures of the outer narthex, depicts the Infancy of Christ. The mosaics can be followed clockwise, starting with Joseph dreaming, the Virgin and two companions, and the journey to Bethlehem. Apart from well-known scenes such as the Journey of the Magi and the Nativity, there are depictions in the seventh bay of the Flight into Egypt. In the sixth bay is the Slaughter of the Innocents, complete with babies impaled on spikes.
The Cycle of Christ’s Ministry fills the vaults of the outer narthex and parts of the south bay of the inner narthex. It includes wonderful scenes of the Temptation of Christ, with dramatic dialogue (Matthew 4: 3–10) that could almost be in speech bubbles, beginning “Devil: If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread. Christ: It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.”
The main frescoes in the nave of St Saviour echo the mosaics, featuring the death of the Virgin over the door and, to the right, a depiction of Christ. The best known of all the works in the church, however, are the frescoes in the funerary chapel to the south of the nave.
The most spectacular of these is the Resurrection, also known as the Harrowing of Hell. It depicts Christ trampling the gates of Hell underfoot, and forcibly dragging Adam and Eve from their tombs. A black Satan lies among the broken fetters at his feet, bound at the ankles, wrists and neck. To the left, animated onlookers include John the Baptist, David and Solomon, while to the right Abel is standing in his mother’s tomb; behind him is another group of the righteous.
Other frescoes in the chapel, in the vault of the east bay, depict the Second Coming, while in the east half of the domical vault Christ sits in judgement.
With such a youthful population, a booming economy and relentless Westernization, it is not surprising that İstanbul is establishing a major reputation for clubbing. The best bars and clubs are in Beyoğlu, Taksim, Ortaköy and the richer Bosphorus suburbs such as Kadıköy. For a more traditional night out, head to a meyhane (tavern), where a fasil band might accompany your food and bottle of rakı. Alternatively, try a Türkü bar, where you can drink and listen to the plaintive sounds of Anatolian folk music. Both meyhanes and Türkü bars are enjoying something of a revival of late, but if you want something more familiar there are countless café-bars and modern nightclubs as well.
The northwest quarter
One of the least visited but most fascinating areas of the old city, the northwest quarter is bounded on the west by the major thoroughfare of Fevzi Paşa Caddesi, to the north by the land walls of Theodosius, to the east by the Golden Horn, and on the south by traffic-choked Atatürk Bulvarı. Once home to a cosmopolitan population of Muslims, Christians and Jews, it’s now a devoutly Muslim area, particularly in the district of Fatih, where you’ll notice many women in chadors and bearded men in şalvar pants, long baggy shirts and skullcaps (dress appropriately).
The most notable sights are a former Byzantine church, now the Zeyrek Camii; two notable Ottoman mosques, the Fatih and Yavuz Selim; the magnificent Byzantine mosaics in the Fethiye Museum, the spiritual centre of the Orthodox Christian world; the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate; and the curious cast-iron church of St Stephen of the Bulgars. A spiritual centre of a different order awaits a couple of kilometres up the Golden Horn from the Patriarchate, the Eyüp area, sacred to Muslims worldwide as it boasts the tomb of Eyüp Ensari, standard-bearer of the Prophet Mohammed.
The Princes’ Islands
With their charming waterfront villages, fin-de-siècle architecture, wooded hills and rocky coves, the romantic Princes’ Islands have always been a favourite retreat from the mainland. Set in the Sea of Marmara between 15km and 30km southeast of the city, the islands are easily accessible by ferry from İstanbul, and can get very crowded in summer, especially at weekends. Cars are banned on the islands, so transport is either by foot, phaeton (horse-drawn carriage), hired bike or donkey. Their proximity to the city makes them an easy, enjoyable and very cheap day-trip, but accommodation is surprisingly expensive, and, on summer weekends, hard to come by.
The copper mines of Chalkitis (Heybeliada), famed in antiquity, are long since exhausted, but they remain visible near Çam Limanı. During the Byzantine era, numerous convents and monasteries were built on the islands, which soon became luxurious prisons for banished emperors, empresses and princes (often after they had been blinded). The islands were neglected by the conquering Ottoman Turks and became a place of refuge for Greek, Armenian and Jewish communities.
In 1846 a ferry service was established and the islands grew popular with Pera’s wealthy merchants and bankers, becoming İstanbul’s favourite summer resort after the establishment of the Republic in 1923. Mosques began to appear in the villages, and hotels and apartment buildings soon followed. A Turkish naval college was established on Heybeliada and Atatürk’s private yacht was moored here as a training ship.
Sivriada, uninhabited and unvisitable, gained public notoriety in 1911 when all the stray dogs in İstanbul were rounded up, shipped out there and left to starve, while Yassıada is best known as a prison island, used for the detention of political prisoners.
Shopping in İstanbul is an experience. Whether or not it’s a pleasant one depends on your ability to ignore the hustlers when you’re not in the mood, and to bargain hard when you are. Don’t miss the Grand Bazaar, a hive of over four thousand little shops. Equally interesting shopping districts scattered around the city include İstiklal Caddesi for clothes, Nişantaşı for upmarket international fashion; and the Spice Bazaar (Mısır Çarşısı) and its environs for spices and sweets. Out of the centre, shopping malls have taken off in a big way, good for homeware and clothes. The covered bazaar is credit-card friendly, as are all shops except the smallest of grocers (bakals) or kiosks.
The mixed dockland area of Tophane is named after the Imperial Armoury – now housing a university – that churned out cannonballs for the Ottoman war machine. It’s dotted with venerable Ottoman buildings, most notably the Kılıç Paşa Camii, dating from 1780, and the more recent Nusretiye Camii (1822), both recently restored. It’s also well known for its large congregation of nargile (water-pipe) cafés.
Turkey’s leading contemporary arts gallery, İstanbul Modern, is housed in a revamped warehouse on the edge of the Bosphorus, just in front of the Nusretiye Camii. The interior is all big, blank white walls and exposed ventilation pipes, with picture windows giving views across the Bosphorus to the Topkapı Palace. The collection includes the best of modern Turkish art, as well as some intriguing video installations from foreign artists. There’s a reference library, a cinema showing arts and independent movies, and a trendy café with a terrace overlooking the Bosphorus.